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  • Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe: Political Geography in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Jason Howard Mezey (bio)

Stephen DedalusClass of ElementsClongowes Wood CollegeSallinsCounty KildareIrelandEuropeThe WorldThe Universe 1

At this early stage of A Portrait, Stephen Dedalus stands as a painfully sympathetic figure. He feels homesick; he is confused about his geography lesson; and he has just been shoved into a sewer ditch. His attempt to locate his place in relation to the universe causes him further confusion and gives him a headache. Even into his adulthood, the issue of Stephen’s rightful place remains unresolved; his eventual goal of exile only suggests where it is not. This ongoing drama of place and displacement makes it easy to bypass the peculiarities of Stephen’s schoolboy list in favor of his adult meditations on language, religion, and art. As a result, the crucial error in his flyleaf inscription remains unacknowledged: Stephen skips from Ireland to Europe, excluding The United Kingdom as an incorporating term. He thus unwittingly produces a text that rends a gaping hole in the fabric of British colonial history.

Despite such narrative interventions, it is still tacitly acknowledged that the concerns of Joyce’s A Portrait are primarily aesthetic rather than political, as its transformation from the more socially conversant Stephen Hero to its compressed final form suggests. While more recent attention to Joyce from a postcolonial studies perspective has helped debunk the legend [End Page 337] of his withdrawal from the problems of history and politics, scholars continue to neglect some of the specific colonial tensions reproduced in A Portrait. 2 More specifically, there has yet to be a significant treatment of the colonial politics of Stephen’s early education from an historical standpoint. Acknowledging the exclusion of the United Kingdom from the flyleaf of Stephen’s geography notebook is essential to such a reading.

Had it been worded more accurately, Stephen’s list would stand as an artifact of English colonial domination phrased benignly as a geography lesson that unquestioningly recognizes Ireland as part of the larger geographical entity Great Britain. The omission of Great Britain confounds not only this geographical conception, but also the underlying history of Ireland as a British colony. Thus, the leap from Ireland to Europe calls attention to competing ways of representing Ireland as either a nation or a colony, as well as to the means of producing and reinforcing such representations in Stephen’s early Jesuit education. As a result, Stephen’s list emerges as the outcome of conflicting educational priorities. The contested territory involves two modes of curricular and political organization—geographical and historical; British educational policy favored their separation, while Joyce forces our attention back towards their interdependency. Examining some of the educational documents to which Stephen may have been exposed reveals a more detailed picture of Joyce’s evocation of geography and history, conveying his sense of the colonial influences on Irish education and complicating his portrait of Stephen as a subject developing in a colonial milieu.

As a political document, Stephen’s list is missing its proper acknowledgement of a key moment in Ireland’s colonization. Formalizing through statute what territorial conquest had already accomplished, the Act of Union (1800, enacted 01) legislatively provided for the incorporation of Ireland’s territory, parliament, and church into Great Britain. 3 However, its passage was not an entirely unilateral move by the British government. As Foster has noted, Catholic Emancipation was a hoped-for rider to the Act of Union, an issue that certainly accounted for some of the Union’s Irish supporters. 4 In addition, the Act itself was passed by a parliamentary vote that took place in both London and Dublin. The Act of Union thus brings into play not only a shift in paradigms of colonial geography (Ireland becomes a subsection of Great Britain rather than a territorially distinct colony), but also the issue of [End Page 338] Irish cooperation in Ireland’s colonization.

The acceptance of Union in a Dublin parliamentary vote was especially galling to Joyce, who portrays this phase of England’s colonial conquest of Ireland as a consensual act. In...

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pp. 337-348
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